December 20, 2016
Financial Misinformation Shared Online
My mother sent an anxious email that included the above picture, which one of her elderly friends had emailed to her as a warning about coming tax increases.
“Have you seen this?” my mother asked in her email.
I’m glad she inquired, because it took 15 seconds to learn on factcheck.org that this misleading information has made the rounds on the Internet for three years in a row, updated to the new year – 2017 this time.
There are nuggets of truth in the misinformation above. The Medicare tax already increased as part of the Affordable Care Act. However, it applies only to employed couples earning more than $250,000 and employed individuals earning more than $200,000. The retirees living in my mother’s very modest senior community – and most working Americans – are not affected. Yet “shocking” information like this rears its head over and over again on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.
At a time that misinformation is deliberately being fabricated, and one such lie coursing through the Internet even spurred gun violence at a Washington, D.C., family pizza joint, it’s time to bring attention to false financial information that, unwittingly, people may be sharing online.
Some of the other taxes in the list above are either inaccurate – the top long-term capital gains tax rate is 20 percent, with a few exceptions – or out of context. Others are old news about prior tax rates that were restored under the “fiscal cliff” legislation that went in effect three years ago.
So why do folks fall for this?
Stanford University Professor Sam Wineburg has conducted research demonstrating that people tend to accept information delivered online at face value, without questioning its source.
Specifically, Wineburg showed that more than 80 percent of high school students who saw a “news” photograph – a daisy that was falsely claimed to have been deformed in the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in Japan – did not question its legitimacy. When it comes to the elderly, cognitive decline can make them even more vulnerable than teenagers to fake news, as well as Internet and email fraud.
“We simply have not caught up to the way these sources of information are influencing the kinds of conceptions that we develop on a day-to-day basis,” Wineburg told NPR.
As a newspaper reporter for 30 years, I was trained to ask two questions about any information that came my way: Where did it come from? Is this a credible source?
If you can’t answer those two questions, please don’t pass it on!
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